Pyeongchang, South Korea • On the 16th day, night fell on Olympic Stadium, flags waved and dancers swayed to the traditional sounds of the gayageums’ strings and a head-banging electric guitar solo underneath a neon pagoda — a mix of old and new, culture and color as chaotic as the past three weeks.
The world’s best winter athletes, some adorned in gold, silver and bronze, all exhausted, waved goodbye.
How to even begin summing up the 2018 Winter Games? To steal from speedskater Shim Suk-hee after she’d won gold in the 3,000 meters for the host country: “It was a very long race, and a lot was happening.”
These Olympics, because they are the Olympics after all, had their share of problems. The stadium in which the Games opened and closed cost $100 million to build, was used a total of four times, and will be torn down next month. Skiers raced in Jeongseon, slaloming through gates where a 500-year-old forest stood before the Olympics were awarded to Pyeongchang.
Many of Russia’s top athletes were not allowed to compete in South Korea, and those who did were not allowed to compete under their flag, a punishment for their national doping scandal. And just when the International Olympic Committee looked ready to let them march and wave the Russian flag during the Closing Ceremony, the second Russian athlete of these Games was accused of using a banned substance during competition.
“I don’t think these Olympic Games have been tainted by the Russian affairs,” IOC President Thomas Bach said at his news conference here Sunday. “We will always have positive cases against every nation. This fight against doping will never be over. We have to be realistic. The day we say we’ve won the fight against doping will never come.”
The IOC is poised to reward the Russians soon for having only two violations in Pyeongchang. “If there are no [more] positive results,” Bach said, “then the sanction is considered to be lifted.”
The Olympics are always the Olympics.
But these Olympics — and perhaps this is only an indictment of the recent Olympic legacy — still felt different by comparison. In Rio, the billions of dollars spent to build venues, many of which sit idle and in disrepair already, contrasted so sharply against the backdrop of the favelas and an economy in collapse. Russia spent in excess of $50 billion to host the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the most expensive Games in history, only to have all sorts of problems with venues and housing. Bach said Pyeongchang had a “balanced budget at least, if not a profitable one.”
There were too many events with far too few fans and even less real snow, but many of the obvious problems that plagued Rio and Sochi were harder to find.
Pyeongchang opened with concerns about a nuclear cold war and closed with people more concerned with the cold itself. The Games opened with the North Korean Ivanka Trump and closed with talks about the real Ivanka’s winter outfits. In the middle, there were dozens of confirmed norovirus cases, but seemingly just as many medals for Norway.
In some ways, that lets these Olympics be more Olympic, and let the athletes and performances speak for themselves rather than as an apology for the IOC.
We will remember the beauty of Yuzuru Hanyu, the resolve of Nathan Chen and the ice-melting passion of Virtue and Moir.
American teenager Chloe Kim live-tweeted the rise of a new snowboarding sensation. Ester Ledecka won gold on borrowed skis and then on her own snowboard. Mikaela Shiffrin won gold and silver, and Lindsey Vonn skied to a bronze that felt just as good.
There were the Garlic Girls and Shuster’s fiver.
There was Gus Kenworthy and Adam Rippon, out and unapologetic, and owning the moment.
North and South Korea marched as one into Olympic Stadium on opening night and battled together as one women’s hockey team on the ice, in what officials hoped would be the start of a real thawing in the relationships between the two divided nations.
“We hope the political world will use this momentum for a dialogue on their level because now it’s up to the politicians,” Bach said. “Sport and the IOC, I think, we have done what we could do.”
Will it last? Can it last? After waving Korean Unification flags during the Opening Ceremony, the South Korean athletes wore their own colors and carried their own flags to close things out.
If the detente between North and South was forced, the bond between a Tongan, a Colombian and a Mexican at the end of a grueling cross-country race was as real as could be, the personification of what so many think the Olympic spirit should be. Tired but not beaten, the last three men to cross the finish line, Pita Taufatofua, the famed shirtless Tongan, Colombia’s Sebastian Uprimny, a Salt Lake City resident, and Mexico’s German Madrazo were wrapped in their country’s flags and one another’s arms.
“I finished with all my friends,” Taufatofua said. “I finished with the guys we fought together with and that was important for me.”
But for those Americans who think medals mean more than warm feelings, thank your nation’s women. In terms of podium appearances, these Games were a disappointment for Team USA, and could result in some changes for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
The United States brought the largest Winter Olympic team ever (242 athletes) and won just 23 medals. The poor showing would have been disastrous if not for a late flurry of outstanding performances by Team USA’s female athletes. Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins, who was honored as the country’s flag bearer for Sunday’s Closing Ceremony, kicked things off with a historic gold medal in cross-country skiing. And while the NHL didn’t let its players onto Olympic ice, that couldn’t stop one U.S. hockey team from winning gold, with Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson’s “Oops I Did It Again” shootout goal to beat Canada becoming an instant classic.
The IOC lauded Pyeongchang as a success but maintains it still wants to look for ways for future cities to host lower-cost Olympics. The committee will announce next year its host for the 2026 Winter Games, and Bach said the group is committed to returning to a traditional winter sports country after Games in Russia, Korea and China. (By the way, Utah officials have been in Pyeongchang this month telling people they’ll be ready to host whenever the opportunity presents itself, whether that be 2026, 2030 or beyond.)
“You cannot always plant new seeds and forget your roots and the strong tree you have with these Olympic Winter Games,” Bach said. “So this cycle, we want to go back to the roots.”
On Sunday, though, the world’s attention was still on Pyeongchang, where the final medals of the Olympics were placed around tired necks, where fireworks lit up the night sky, where a flame was finally extinguished.